Silk Road today: tourists and shimmering oases
Marco Polo passed this way, a lad in his teens accompanying his father and uncle on their arduous four-year journey from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan.Skip to next paragraph
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So, 1,300 years before him, did Chang Chien, emissary of the powerful emperor Wu-Ti of the Han Dynasty, spying out the ''western regions'' and hoping to obtain the swift horses of Ferghana for his master's cavalry.
So did a host of generals, officials, merchants, priests, plunderers, and adventurers from east and west, seeking conquest, or riches, or religious enlightenment, on what Westerners came to call the Silk Road from China to Persia and on to Byzantium and Rome.
The Silk Road thrived when China was strong, when the emperor's writ ran from the Central China Plain to the steppes of central Asia. It declined when, under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese armies withdrew behind the Great Wall, and the sea route to India and Europe became safer and more reliable than camel caravans across the Gobi Desert.
Today, under the People's Republic, China is strong again. But for the people of the oasis towns of Jiuquan and Jiayuguan, Dunhuang and Turfan, the Silk Road is a memory, useful mainly in attracting tourists from distant Europe and America.
The two-humped Bactrian camel has been retired from service as the ship of the desert, except to carry occasional scientific expeditions. You can pick up a camel in Dunhuang for 300 yuan (less the $200), less than what a good mule or horse might cost. You can use a camel to pull a cart, but he eats too much and is not as versatile as a donkey or a horse in plowing a field or taking goods to market.
Instead of being exotic staging posts on the way to Europe, cities farther along the Silk Road, like Kaxgar or Aksu, are sensitive military garrison towns, closed to most foreigners, alert to what the Soviet Union may be planning on its side of the central Asian frontier.
China no longer looks outward along the old Silk Road, as it did in the spacious days of Tang, when merchants from Persia and holy men from India jostled emissaries from the eastern seas in the broad, straight streets of Changan, present-day Xian.
Instead, it has paved and slightly rerouted the Silk Road, paralleling it with a railroad that ties Sinkiang -- for many years known more romantically in the West as Chinese Turkestan - more closely to what used to be called China proper than any preceding dynasty.
The railroad, an extension of the east-west Longhai line from Sian through Lanzhou to Urumchi, capital of Sinkiang, fulfills Dr. Sun Yat Sen's vision of a unified China securely held together by trunk lines crisscrossing the country east to west and north to south. Lanzhou, the jumping-off point for excursions along the old Silk Road, has become not only a metropolis of 1 million inhabitants, but also a communications hub, with rail lines radiating east to Sian and Shanghai, north to Inner Mongolia and Peking, west to Urumchi, and south to Sining nd Golmud in desolate Qinghai Province. The Sining-Golmud line will eventually extend to Lhasa, capital of Tibet.
One thing the Lanzhou-Urumchi line definitely will not do is link up with the Soviet Turksib railway, although in the early 1950s, the days of euphoric Sino-Soviet brotherhood, such a link was planned. It would have had the modern version of the old Silk Road ending in Moscow.